National Thrift Shop Day

The celebration and story of how trash became treasure.

National Thrift Shop Day
Goodwill Industries have reported over $5 billion in revenues.

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Do you thrift? According to America’s Research Group, a consumer research firm, about 16 to18 percent of Americans will shop at a thrift store during a given year.

Thrifting became more mainstream in 2012 when hip-hop artist, Mackelmore’s single “Thrift Store” topped music charts.

Today, thrift stores have become the shopping destination of choice for hipsters looking for vintage wares and authentic finds. Of course, thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army serve a non-trendy role too, as a shopping destination of necessity for America’s working class.

Secondhand stores were not always accepted by people like they are today.

Up until about the 20th Century, thrift stores were looked down upon and in many cases denounced.

In 1884 the Saturday Evening Post, printed a short story entitled “The Blue Silk”, which told the story of a young woman buying a pre-owned dress from a “Jewess counter”. When she arrives at a party wearing the dress, she is ostracized by her peers for wearing the old dress of another girl and falls ill with small-pox because of contamination from the store.

The story illustrates the antisemitic bigotry of the times alongside the moral and physical dangers thought to accompany secondhand stores.

During the 1800′s, secondhand stores known as “rag shops” were predominately owned and operated by Jewish people. Many viewed the stores and the items sold in them as sullied and unwholesome.

What changed the stereotype of secondhand goods? How did the American thrift store get re-purposed?

In 1902, Reverend Edgar J. Helms founded what would later be known as Goodwill Industries, which employed the poor and disabled in gathering old goods for reuse.

Located in New England, Helms sought to “take wasted things donated by the public and employ wasted men and women to bring both things and persons back to usefulness and well-being.”

As Goodwill Industries declared with its new motto in 1922, it was “not charity, but a chance.”

The Second Industrial Revolution paralleled the founding of the new Christian secondhand shops. Urban areas grew and living quarters shrank, as rural farmers and European immigrants flocked to the factory jobs in the city.

There was scarce room for rural families unused goods, producing a higher turnover of household items. The boom in immigration created an increase in demand for these secondhand items, as immigrants struggled to assimilate on small wages.

Thrift stores reshaped many philanthropic capitalists' approach to charity. Thrift stores were not so much a Christian virtue as an economic one.

Philanthropy was instrumental in distancing secondhand exchange from negative associations while simultaneously affiliating it with benevolance.
Jennifer Le Zotte, From Goodwill to Grunge

Similarly, the culture of giving during WWI, grew as a result of necessity. Working middle-class citizens would willfully and frequently respond to public donation appeals.

The convergence of philanthropy and capitalism created a viable secondary market for household goods.

This WWI era Salvation army depicts the culture of giving required during this time.
This WWI era Salvation army depicts the culture of giving required during this time. (Source: Salvation Army Archives)

Once people saw opportunity, secondhand stores became part of the market, as well as a piece of the larger social effort to alleviate poverty.

Beyond the millions of secondhand goods given new life with new owners, the result of the rise of the thrift shop has been “unprecedented profitability” for Christian community organizations
Jennifer Le Zotte, Not Charity, but a Chance”: Philanthropic Capitalism and the Rise of American Thrift Stores

Today, there are over 25,000 resale shops across the country. Many of these resale shops have online storefronts as well, most notably, Goodwill and Salvation Army.

Bargain hunters can even shop thrift stores online. Goodwill has their own website where people can shop for secondhand items.
Bargain hunters can even shop thrift stores online. Goodwill has their own website where people can shop for secondhand items. (Source: Shopgoodwill.com)
Thrifters can shop secondhand items donated to Salvation Army online.
Thrifters can shop secondhand items donated to Salvation Army online. (Source: Salvation Army)

First Research estimates the resale industry in the U.S. to earn more than $17 billion in revenues. Goodwill makes up over $5 billion of these revenues.

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